Section One: The Woodsman
The woods weren't quiet, of course.
Though the hunter, crouched among ferns and brush, supposed they were to city dwellers.
He slowly let out a breath, watching the doe lower her head to graze, walking forward as she did. He slowly swung his bow around and reached back, drawing an arrow from his quiver and aiming, pulling back on the cord. The doe paused, tensing, then continued to graze.
Just as the hunter was about to release the arrow, a horrendous clatter from the not-to-far-away little-used road startled the doe into bolting. With a sigh, the hunter stood, replacing the arrow. Just as well, he had gotten a rabbit today already; it would probably press his luck to hunt more today. He'd try for a deer tomorrow.
He went back to his horse, which was tied a good distance away, tail waving back and forth. His horse, a mellow brown mare of undeterminable breed, looked up when he appeared and nickered softly. He patted the mare's neck and swung into the saddle after untying the reins, easily maneuvering through the woods to his cabin.
When his horse stepped into the clearing, he observed an ornate carriage drawn by a pair of white horses in front of his cabin, along with what appeared to be a mounted guard. The apparent leader of the guard was talking to someone inside the carriage.
"Appears to be empty, your Ladyship…"
"May I be of some assistance?" The hunter directed his mare so they stood between the convoy and the cabin.
"Are you the owner of this residence?" The lead guard turned his horse, eyes narrowed.
"Yes. I live here alone."
"Where is the nearest lodging from here?"
The hunter glanced at the waning sunlight, and replied, "The nearest town is at least a half-day's ride from here, good sir. I would offer you lodging here, but I doubt very much it is to your preference."
The head guard, a middle-aged hound, studied the hunter. A young fox with startlingly blue eyes, dressed in worn but clean breeches and a tied tunic. A bow and quiver hung off his back, and the guard also noticed a rabbit tied to the back of the simple saddle. "I'm afraid we might have to accept your offer. It is either that, or camp for the night."
A feminine voice spoke up from inside the carriage, too muffled for the hunter to understand clearly, and the guard sighed, turning his horse to talk through a slightly opened curtain. After a moment, he turned his horse back. "Looks like we'll have to take the cabin for our Ladyship, at least."
"Only proper. Unfortunately, my pantry is almost empty. I fear I don't have enough food for your convoy." He sighed, checking his quiver again. "Make yourselves comfortable, I'll see what I can do about food." He turned his mare to reenter the woods.
"Grey." The guard looked at one of his other men. "Accompany him."
"Sir." The beagle nudged his gelding forward to pace the fox's mare.
"That isn't necessary." The fox said simply, turning to look at the head guard.
With a sigh, the fox nudged his mare into a canter, weaving easily through the trees. "Pace me. You'll easily get lost…"
"It is quite kind of you to give up your cabin for our Ladyship…" Attempted the young guard.
"Only proper." He repeated, pulling up his mare and dismounting. "You're a royal guard?"
"Yes." Grey imitated the fox. "I would appreciate your title."
There was a hesitation, then, "I have no title. My name is McCloud." He tied both horses. "Stay here."
"I was ordered to accompany you."
Fox gave him a droll look. "You'll scare away dinner if you do, no matter how quiet you try to be." And with that, he slid off into the woods, disappearing in seconds.
The head guard, Charles Pepper, looked around the cabin. It wasn't quite what he expected, somehow. For one, it seemed to be divided into three rooms—a main room, a small storage room were some skins were being stretched and others stored, and a bedroom. Also, instead of having a packed dirt floor, river stone had been brought in and tamped so the main room and bedroom had stone flooring. Besides that, the cabin was simply arranged and furnished. It seemed their host had little need for most luxuries.
"Is it suitable for your Ladyship?" Pepper asked, looking at the eldest of the three ladies in waiting.
"I would prefer our Lordship's house, but it will do." She replied stiffly.
He bowed his head and left.
The princess herself got out of the carriage and entered the cabin, taking a look around with mild curiosity. It wasn't quite what she had been expecting. Noting what appeared to be a large leather-bound book, she walked forward and undid the closed buckle, opening it.
"Your Ladyship, I doubt that…" The head of the ladies in waiting protested.
"Our host can read and write." She replied simply, closing and latching the book, and looking around. "Is that usual for a simple woodsman?"
The lady in waiting, a middle-aged chaperone named Marie, snorted. "No, but you also can not be sure that it is his handwriting in the book."
The princess nodded once. Actually, she would have been happy if she had seen who exactly their host was, but Marie had prevented it. She was used to it.
Not long after that, McCloud reentered the clearing, Bill following. A midsized doe was tied behind McCloud's saddle.
"A good hunt, eh?" Asked Pepper.
"Yes." Fox McCloud dismounted easily, and noticing that the other horses were tied to a tree nearby, untied them and led the whole party's horses as well as his own behind the house.
Pepper followed after a moment, and found that McCloud was taking the tack off the several horses, which fell to grazing easily in the makeshift corral. Apparently not noticing he was being watched, McCloud disappeared into the forest with a yoke across his shoulders, and came back with two buckets full of water, which he dumped into a wooden trough.
"You have been very hospitable to us." Pepper finally said as he watched McCloud dress the deer.
The young fox looked up, not surprised at all by the guard's presence—he had known all along that the guard had been there. "Only the proper thing to do, sir. Besides, I'm glad for the company. I am alone the greater part of the year."
"A trapper, then?"
"Forgive me, but where are your parents?"
There was a pause as the young fox finished and carried the deer out to the cooking fire the rest of the guards had ready. He came back, rinsed the blood from his hands in the remainder of water in bucket, and tossed the water out. "They are dead."
"Forgive me for asking, then." Pepper lowered his head.
"No, you were in your right. It is your duty to protect your Ladyship, so it is only proper to make sure I am honorable." He paused. "If I am to camp with your guards this night, my bedroll is inside."
"I'm sure the Ladies won't mind if you go in and fetch it. It is your house after all, you are entitled."
Fox hesitated, then nodded and went around the house to do so.
"Plain, but serviceable." Marie finally said, looking around at the cabin. The princess, one Fara Phoenix, sat in one of the two carved wooden chairs, watching her ladies investigate the cabin.
"This cabinet is locked." Remarked one of the other two ladies.
"And I prefer it stay that way." Remarked a new voice.
They all turned, and saw the lean figure of their host. He regarded them, then executed a bow like a lord. "Forgive me for startling you, Ladies. I'm quite aware I shouldn't be here. I will be gone in just a moment." He straightened and quietly brushed by them, boots clicking on the stone floor, going to the bedroom and coming out with a bedroll tucked under his arm. "But I am quite serious about that cabinet. It need not concern you." He left, closing the door behind him.
"Well!" Marie put her hands on her hips.
"Seems polite to me." Fara said simply, glancing at Marie. Actually, she had approved of their host, especially when he had bowed.
"You didn't have to allow us to stay with you, you know." Remarked a guard.
Fox had knelt next to the fire, tail tip just barely twitching. He looked at the guard. "It was the right thing to do. Gave your lady some shelter for the night, it would be hardly right for her to be without such…"
"Do you have a code you are following?" Pepper suddenly looked up from the fire to Fox.
Several of the guards laughed a bit. "Sir, he's just a woodsman…" Started one, snickering to himself.
"Yes I do, sir." Fox said, slowly looking up.
They all blinked, stunned.
"What do you follow, then?" Pepper asked.
He didn't answer for a moment, just bowed his head, then suddenly said, "I follow Bushido, sir."
"You follow WHAT?" Said several of the guards together.
"It's an oriental code of honor." The look Pepper gave Fox was now extremely respectful. "How did you learn that, young man?"
"My father taught me." He stood and stretched slowly.
The guards glanced at each other and didn't ask anything else, noting something in their host's manner that prevented them from asking.
Pepper woke up late that night and sat up. The fire had died down to faint embers. He rubbed his eyes wearily with one hand, and reached out his other automatically to touch his weapons. His fingers glanced over his crossbow, but when it reached his sword, there was nothing there. He woke up fully, startled, and looked down. The grass was pressed down from where the broadsword had been, but it wasn't there. Then he heard the dull, soft thumps of feet hitting on the ground, and stood. He followed the sound away from the camp, through a few yards of trees, and to a small clearing.
He stopped before he entered it. There was his host, shirtless, effortlessly working with his missing sword. He worked with the touch of one trained, muscles flexing easily, working both two-handed and one-handed, going through moves both familiar and exotic to Pepper. After a moment, he stopped, back turned to Pepper, then turned on heel and bowed to Pepper, arms out, holding out the sword on his palms to the owner. Pepper stepped forward and took the blade.
"I apologize. I wouldn't have taken yours, but I wasn't able to get to my own, and I was fully planning on returning it with no damage, or perhaps sharper once I take my sharpening equipment to it."
"Your father taught you… to use swords, yes? Where did he learn?"
Fox retied his tunic, and was silent.
"I asked you a question young man."
"I mean no disrespect. I just don't wish to say anything." He said softly.
Pepper stepped back, arms crossed. "Hmmm. Any reason why?"
Silence, then, "Yes. And I don't wish to talk about it." He gave a respectful bow and left the clearing, returning to the cabin.
Thok. Thok. Thok.
"What is that?" Bill asked around a yawn.
His question was answered when their host came around the cabin, carrying a load of firewood in his arms. He crouched and rebuilt the fire to a cooking fire, and sharp sizzling sounds cut the air as he put bacon on a grill he had arranged over it.
"And you're cooking for us as well?" Pepper asked.
"Well, you are my guests." He replied, shrugging. Looking at Pepper out of the corner of his eye, he remarked, "You aren't just head guard, are you?"
"That's what I'm serving as right now, but in actuality, it's not really what I am." He admitted, getting up and waking up the rest of the guards.
"I could tell by your manner. You don't act like a guard."
"And you know enough about them to judge that?"
Fox gave him an amused look. "You knew what Bushido was, sir."
Letting one of the guards take over the cooking, he stood, and went around the cabin to where the horses were, patting necks in turn and getting out a set of currycombs, murmuring to calm the higher-strung city horses.
Fara woke up and looked around. Her ladies in waiting were still fast asleep. She could smell food being cooked outside, but wasn't yet hungry herself. She got up, smoothing her skirts, and curiously investigated the cabin for herself. Leaning into the apparent storage room, she noticed another door, and after glancing over her shoulder, stepped onto the dirt floor and eased the bar up on the door.
Peeking out, she saw that it led to the back yard of the cabin. The horses were there in a makeshift corral, and her host was busily currycombing one, back turned to her. She slipped out the door and quietly closed it, watching her host.
"Don't think I didn't hear you." Fox remarked quietly over his shoulder.
"I was being as quiet as I could." She replied, abashed.
"It's nothing you were really aware of, your Highness. Your breathing, the rustle of your skirts." He shrugged, back still turned to her. "Because I live a life in the forest and the quiet, I have very sharp hearing. I have to. I'm a tracker."
"Seems to me you have multiple talents."
"I'm flattered." He circled around the horse and started in on the other side.
She stepped forward and looked over the horse's back at him. He didn't meet her eyes. "Pardon me for saying, you seem very, well, honorable for a simple woodsman."
He lifted his gaze to hers. "There's nothing simple about me, your Highness."
She blinked, surprised. Instead of eyes of gold, his eyes were blue, with a very disciplined gaze. "Somehow that's what I thought." She rubbed her chin, stepping around the horse so she could see him better. "My name is Fara Phoenix."
He still held her gaze. "Mine is Fox McCloud." The horse snorted and shifted, but at his coaxing stood still long enough for him to finish the basic brushing.
Fara sighed, twisting to face Marie. "Yes?"
"What are you doing outside?!"
She didn't answer, instead looked back at Fox, meeting his gaze again.
Marie had seen all she needed to. She bustled forward and drew Fara back. "Come back inside the cabin, dear." She said firmly, glaring at Fox.
"I don't think you have anything to worry about as far as Sir McCloud is concerned." Fara growled as she was escorted around the cabin towards the front door. "He's as honorable as most knights are."
"Madam?" Fox suddenly said, causing Marie to turn and look at him. "She is quite right. I do have a code I follow. Your Highness was in no danger." He turned back and continued what he was doing.
"We appreciate your hospitality, sir McCloud." Pepper leaned his hands on his saddle, holding the reins lightly.
Fox bowed fully, eyes lowered. "It was the least I could do, kind sirs."
"We could reward you…"
"No, no such is needed. Your company was enough, good sirs." He straightened.
Pepper smiled. "We were honored to stay here, sir McCloud."
"I am no sir, I am just a woodsman."
"As you will." Pepper smiled, and urged his horse forward, leading the convoy away.
A week later, Fox rode to the town, carrying a small load of hides. Really summer was the slow time for him, because winter was best for pelts, but summer was still good for leather.
The town was busier then usual, and a large crowd had gathered in the town square, apparently waiting for something. Fox slowed his horse and looked around. After a moment, he rode over to the tanner's, deciding to deal with business first.
When he came out half an hour later, his moneybags significantly heavier, the crowds were still waiting. He untied his horse and walked through town, watching. After a moment, he walked over to a middle-aged hare whom was standing watching the events. "Pardon me, good sir, but would you be so kind as to tell me what's going on?"
"King's making an announcement today. There's a war starting in the west." Was the reply.
"Thank you, kind sir." Fox nodded respectively, then went to the back of the crowd and remounted so he could see better.
The hare stared after him, frowning. He had recognized the fox, but he wasn't sure if he was right. He kept half an eye on the young man, crossing his arms over the ornate vest he wore and waiting.
Moments later, the king appeared on the balcony, accompanied by the queen and princess Fara. Fox felt himself smile a little. Fara looked bored, scanning the crowd.
Even over the distance, their eyes met. Fara smiled a little, looking him right in the eyes. He returned the gaze, then bowed his head respectively.
"Good citizens." The king began, and the crowd fell silent.
Fox listened, leaning forward on his saddle. It seemed that the neighboring country, ruled by the Dictator Andross, had started invading the borders of their kingdom. When the crowd muttered and shifted, the king was quick to assure them that all was in good hands. A number of their best knights had ridden out this morning to join the forces already fighting, and the invasion was sure to be deterred soon.
After the speech, Fox considered, and seeing the sun was near setting, decided to stay at the inn for the night and return to his cabin in the morning.
As with many inns, one of the city taverns was part of the building, and the rest was the inn itself. He tied his horse and went in, leaning on the bar and gesturing for the bartender, who walked over after a moment.
"What can I get you, stranger?"
He ordered a glass of wine, then turned and leaned his back against the bar, watching the people come and go.
"You don't seem like a local, young man." Remarked a voice he recognized.
Turning, he saw the same hare he had talked to earlier. "I only come into town a few days of the year, good sir."
The hare had an oddly regal look, and stood proud. He was dressed well—not like a royal, but with an aura of one a step above the commoners. "Ah, that explains it." And it also almost confirmed what the Hare suspected, but he decided to leave the young man to his devices for now.
A minor commotion broke out at one of the bar that quickly escalated into an all-out bar fight. Fox huffed out a sigh, then set his glass down and walked over, stepping between the two men fighting and forcing them apart. "That's enough, if you will. None of us here want any trouble."
The two men immediately directed their blows to him. He ducked and swept his leg down and around, hard and fast, knocking both to the ground. They blinked at him, and he gave them hands up automatically.
"What kind of move was that?" One wanted to know.
"One that kept you from hitting me." Fox replied with a small smile, and left the pair to stand there, dazed, then they shrugged and bought each other drinks.
The hare was watching him intently, then said, "I thought I knew who you are when I saw you. Now I'm sure."
"How is it, sir, that you know me but I don't know you?" He picked up his glass.
"I knew your father. You're James McCloud's son."
Fox startled. "Yes, I am."
"Don't worry, son. Your father and I served together. I have fond memories of him." The hare smiled. "And I would be happy to provide you with better lodging."
"You are too kind, sir."
"No, it's the least I can do. Your father saved me a great many times. My name is Peppy Hare."
Fox looked at him, then smiled just a little. "I apologize for not recognizing you, Peppy. I do remember you, but this is basically the first time I've seen you without armor." They left, Fox untying and leading his horse. "I'm not what my father was." He remarked, glancing at the older hare. "So please, don't think I am."
"He trained you for it, did he not?" Peppy turned to him and raised an eyebrow. "What your father was was an honorable fighter. Is that was you are?"
He downcast his gaze. "No. I am just a woodsman. And my father has been dead over a year now."
Peppy nodded to himself, and led the young man to his house.
"Surely you believe you are more then just a woodsman." Peppy later stated.
Fox was silent, kneeling so he sat on his ankles, head bowed, before the small altar in Peppy's house. "I am what I am, and that is not a knight, not a fighter. Just a woodsman. I'm a tracker." He said, barely moving his mouth.
Peppy was silent, then said, "Your father's death hit you hard, didn't it?"
The young man gave him no answer, standing with a simple flex of his legs.
"I'd rather not discuss this." He finally said, brushing by and out of the room.
"You're going to have to sooner or later. You've got the blood of a warrior in you, Fox."
He turned and looked at Peppy. "I'm not a warrior and never will be."
"You can't deny what you are deep down."
He smiled a bit. "Or what you think I am deep down." He turned and continued down the hall, to the room Peppy had said he could use.
When Fox woke up, he could hear a rising commotion outside the house, as well as on the first floor of the house he was in. He got up and left the bedroom, tying his tunic and smoothing his fur. "What happened?" He asked Peppy once he had found his host.
"Princess Fara disappeared." Was the reply. Peppy was leaning on a windowsill watching the ruckus. "The King seems like he's about to rip the town apart over it. He's having every house searched. Rumor has it though that Andross' forces are behind it, which is of course the logical explanation."
Fox stood there, unsure what to do or if he could even do anything.
A knight entered the room. "Well, Sir Hare, nothing here to make you guilty, but with the way the king is, we may return later… Who is this?" He focused on Fox, eyes narrowing.
"At ease. This is McCloud's son."
"Ah." The knight nodded once and left.
"And that immediately means I'm not subject to suspicion?" Fox asked Peppy.
"Your father is somewhat of a legend, Fox."
"True, perhaps, but that's him. Not me." He looked out the window at the chaos outside. "I don't want to live in my father's shadow, Peppy."
"Until you make a name for yourself, that's always where you'll be." Was the quiet reply. "Why do you think I keep telling you to be what you're meant to? If you don't let people know who YOU are, you'll always be where you are now—in your father's shadow."
Fox turned his back completely to Peppy, sinking into thought. "Do you really think that's true?"
"I think you know what you need to do."
He turned back, and nodded once. "Thank you."
"You're thanking me for nothing." Peppy listened as Fox left the room, then sighed and shook his head. God knew that the death of his father had changed Fox. He had never seen the young man so deeply reserved and drawn into himself. He wasn't sure what Fox was planning, yet, but decided to help, if he was able.
Fox, meanwhile, had gathered what little he had brought in and left the house, heading to collect his horse from the stable.
He arrived back at his cabin in the early afternoon.
He had pressed his horse a bit, who was used to it and took it easily. He left his horse in front of his cabin and went in, going directly to the locked cabinet. He fingered the handle, sighed, and muttered under his breath. He felt the minor magic rise from him, and the cabinet doors swung open.
Because of his travels, his father had worn not the traditional armor of a knight, but rather armor of oriental design. He did have a broadsword, but a katana with an ornately carved hilt had been presented to him during his travels. Fox looked at the armor for a long time, then sighed.
He did know what he had to do.
He left the cabinet open and went into his storage room, moving things around until he came upon what he was looking for—an ornate saddle and bridle. He picked the tack up and went back outside. His mare perked up when she saw him, practically prancing when he removed the simpler tack and buckled on the ornate gear. He would have rather stayed with his other tack, but this saddle had needed additions for the armor.
He went back inside, looking at the armor again, then steeled himself. He knew he wanted to prove himself. This was his chance.